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SAN JUAN ISLANDS — I was behind the wheel of the 37-foot sailboat Chinook a few hours out of Bellingham when I spotted my first harbor porpoise. Or rather heard my first porpoise.

Not more than 15 feet off the stern came a “pop-whoosh” sound as it crested and dived back under.

In the week to come, porpoises and seals would become commonplace, but in that moment the animal created euphoria on our boat once I let out the call.

I smiled and surveyed the scene. Off the bow, a matted green canopy of madrona trees clung to the jagged headlands of Sucia Island. We could just see the opening to the inviting, teal-colored bay that would shelter us for the night.

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Only a few hours into a weeklong sailing trip around the San Juan Islands, and my hectic everyday life had disappeared almost as quickly as the porpoise.

Off the ferry route

If you’ve ever ridden a ferry through the San Juan Islands, you know it’s a bit like flying over Hawaii. Sure the place is beautiful, and you’re happy to watch it from afar, but where you really want to be is out there — with the freedom to explore the nooks and crannies that notch every island.

When my in-laws (who own a boat in North Carolina) came for a visit and chartered a sailboat, my wife and I jumped at the chance to crew for them.

And what did we learn? Chartering a boat is easier than I’d expected. And the delights even better than I imagined.

The average person needs to know two things before heading out: where to go, and how to do it — as in, all those rules that come with operating a watercraft.

The first was easy. The night before our charter, we met with staff of San Juan Sailing, who gave us a map highlighting the most popular routes (roughly counterclockwise from Bellingham) and some of the best moorages.

At a glance we could plan a week of travel, or change plans en route should bad weather or laziness strike us.

General manager Rick Sale told us some of the best islands could be crowded during a three-week period from late July to mid-August. But in the fall, you can have your pick of moorages.

We sat through several hours of dos and don’ts of the sea, which all boiled down to “don’t hit anything.”

It’s a good idea to have someone on board who knows boating basics such as yielding the right of way and anchoring, but the actual getting from one place to another is rather simple, so long as you keep a sharp eye out for rocks and other boats.

Fortunately, most waters around the San Juans are deep, the traffic thins in September and the rocks are fairly obvious — especially with the real-time GPS navigation system included on many boats.

Losing yourself in a maze

By the second day I would have been hopelessly lost without a map — or chart, as they’re known in nautical parlance. Endless narrow passages made it hard to tell where one island ended and another began. It was easy to imagine we were wandering an endless green maze, or a pirate ship searching for prey.

Some islands had imposing mountains, some exhibited slender necks of land or sheer cliffs, while others held a single home with a front yard full of bull kelp.

Many islands, such as Jones and Cypress, contain government-managed parklands with a network of hiking trails and astounding beachfront camping.

To my surprise the best part of sailing wasn’t sailing at all. In the evenings we would anchor in a bay, drop our kayaks in the water and paddle ashore, or claim some nearby island for ourselves.

Just off Stuart Island, we probed tidal pools for purple sea stars, anemones and tiny collector crab. On Sucia Island, we scoured the eroding cliffs for fossil remains (just look, don’t remove; this is protected state-park land). On Cypress, we hiked to Eagle Cliff, from which a blue panorama of saltwater stretched from Mount Rainier to Canada.

When conditions were right, we threw a crab pot overboard and more often than not, landed a Dungeness or Red Rock crab for dinner.

Surprises are the best part

Our sailboat had limited wastewater storage capacity, and by the third day we were forced to sidetrack to Roche Harbor to, ahem, offload. I was annoyed at the detour, but what we discovered during our hourlong stop was nothing short of dreamlandia.

A tiny village stood at the end of a quintessential harbor chock full of boats. The man at the end of the dock sold us a dozen fresh oysters, and there was a wedding ceremony in the town’s Victorian garden. Crisp white railings, ice-cream slurping boaters and eagles screeching overhead made us feel like we’d sailed onto the set of “Pleasantville” or “The Truman Show.”

Ah, sailing in the San Juans. Where even dumping your waste can turn into a fairytale experience.

Seattle-based writer Jeff Layton writes about catching Dungeness crab from a kayak on his blog,

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